NEW YORK - One of the biggest corporate casualties of the global credit crisis, the Bear Stearns Cos. Inc., is about to vanish into history.
The company brought to the verge of bankruptcy amid heavy mortgage-related losses is expected to become part of JPMorgan Chase & Co. after a vote today by Bear Stearns shareholders. But while the vote will seal the buyout deal brokered by the Federal Reserve, the debate about the 85-year-old company's demise will continue as analysts, academics and politicians try to decide exactly what went wrong.
Bear Stearns began to unravel last year, when two hedge funds it managed imploded because of heavy bets on subprime-mortgage securities. It was forced to take $2.75 billion in write-downs for soured investments on securities backed by subprime mortgages. Then rumors in mid-March about the company's cash position triggered a run on the investment bank that left it close to bankruptcy.
Analysts say they believe the Fed's direct intervention, persuading JPMorgan to buy Bear Stearns, will be the most-discussed issue.
"This will all be hindsight in five years, when academics decide if the market could have absorbed a bankruptcy, or if the government was right to get involved," said Richard X. Bove, a financial strategist with Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services Inc.
The government reasoned that it orchestrated the sale of Bear Stearns and its $400 billion balance sheet to prevent fallout from its failure from hurting the rest of the global financial system. But critics say they believe the Fed's action sets a dangerous precedent and could raise the expectation that the government will bail out investment banks that take too much risk.
The quick sale of Bear Stearns also limited the chances for any competitive buyout offers.
The coming months might also reveal exactly what caused Bear Stearns to buckle. Bear Stearns is said to have burned through $15 billion in cash reserves in the days leading up to its sale, as rumors prompted major customers to take business elsewhere.
There have been a number of reports that Bear Stearns plans to turn over documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission that could show that rivals like the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citadel Investment Group L.L.C., and Paulson & Co. Inc. slashed their exposure to the securities firm just before its collapse. The SEC is expected to use the data to decide if any trading activity was improperly coordinated to manipulate or contribute to Bear Stearns' collapse.
John Nester, a spokesman for the SEC, would not confirm or deny the reports. Spokesmen for the three firms had no comment.
For the 14,000 Bear Stearns employees that began the year with jobs, the next few weeks will be difficult. JPMorgan chief executive officer Jamie Dimon plans to keep a little more than half of them. The rest will be added to the nearly 65,000 people who have lost jobs at banks, brokerages and mortgage companies in the last 10 months.